Key Skill: Self-Directed Learning

As I am part of many virtual conversations with educators from around the world, reading through my Twitter feed and reading blog post after blog post, I am hyper aware of this global documentation of a unique “new-ways-of-learning” remote teaching and learning environment.

A few things are crystallizing themselves as physical schools are closed and students are to learning remotely from home. This is not meant to judge or blame anyone! These notes are meant to document my observations in April of 2020.

As we are looking ahead to how we will transition and how we will prepare, draft and implement what will come AFTER the pandemic, after the lock-down, after physical schools re-open for in-person learning, what are some key skills, we could/should be focusing on, instead of bungee-chording back to the way things were before 2020? I will focus on individual skills over the next few blog posts.


Remote learning relies on students to being self-directed learners. Older students are more likely to be able to engage, search for help online, find ways to “figure a task out”. The younger our learners are, the more they need to rely on parent support. For many working parents, that is not easy or just not possible.

We need to start planting the seeds early for a more self-directed learning vs. showing up for class and waiting-to-see-what-a- teacher-has-planned for us today! Check out the following posts about self-directed fluency (2011) and creating evidence of learning (2013) for younger learners. [I wish I could catch up with those younger learners (they currently should be in high school), ask them if they continued to build their self-directed learning skills throughout their school years and how are these skills helping them during these remote learning times?]

“Self-Directed Learning” skills are buzzing around everywhere… With a simple Google search, you can find the term sprinkled on many University sites, prestigious private K-12 school pages, in book references, scholarly articles, etc. The term is associated with life-long learning, highly effective classroom environments, one’s own learning awareness, self-guided learning, metacognition, self-motivated and self-determined learning, heutagogy and so on. Just because self-directed learning is a buzzword, that is being used to promote or “decorate” a school’s mission statement, does not mean that students are actually self-directed learners.

I am proposing to embed the following skills to raise awareness, plant the seed, support and develop self-directed learning skills in our learners to support them in all-what-is-yet-to-come in their life time in terms of disruptions, changes, challenges, and unknowns.

Heutagogical Documentation

In Janet Hale and my book A Guide to Documenting Learning– Making Thinking Visible, Meaningful, Shareable and Amplified, we talk a lot about heutagogical documentation. This specific documentation is

“learner driven and focuses on self-motivated and self-directed learning”

as opposed to pedagogical documentation, which is teacher driven and focuses on aiding the teaching process, techniques and/or strategies. In the book, we further define heutagogical documentation as:

documentation directed to aid self-awareness, fuel motivation to learn, and support decision-making concerning what wants or needs to be learned or can be learned next.

As we make documenting a heutagogical framework in education by looking for our learning, capturing evidence of that learning, reflecting on our learning and sharing our learning, we support skills, literacies and fluency that support remote/distance/e-learning (or whatever you want to call it).


Curation and its associated skills has been on my radar as an educational challenge for a while. Not only is it a vital skill that directly connects with self-directed learning, but it also develops and strengthens the now skills and literacies in the process.

Curation goes beyond collecting and randomly sharing out information and resources, but is an active, strategic thinking process of:

  • what is worth keeping/saving/archiving? (critical thinking)
  • what is of little or no quality and therefore not worth keeping? (information, media literacy)
  • what is considered fake news and therefore needs to be prevented from further dissemination (critical thinking, information, network, media literacy, digital citizenship)
  • how would others benefit from my sharing? (communicate, collaborate, network and global literacy)
  • what is my responsibility, as part of a network, to contribute and be a filter for others in the “information overload” era? (network literacy, information literacy and digital citizenship)
  • what value could I add to the original resource? (connect, create, information, media, network literacy,
  • how do I save resources, tag/label/categorize them appropriately, so they connect with resources others have tagged (think folksonomy), might search for with specific keywords, and/or other resources I might save in the future? (connect, communicate, collaborate, critical thinking, information literacy, network literacy)

Organization in general is deeply embedded into curation. Organizing one’s learning needs, tasks, inquiries, artifacts, process, progress, path and creations is a critical skill to develop with a self-directed learning mentality.

Web Literacy -Information & Search Skills-

Alan November has been an advocate for web literacy for decades. In his book Web Literacy for Educators, he stresses the importance of information literacy in general and specifically search skills.

These are skills to be aware of, develop, and gain fluency in as we become more self-directed learners.

Tutorial Skills

No matter what you want to learn, no matter what you need help with, most likely there is a tutorial somewhere on the web. Some are quality tutorials, some are mediocre, some are flat out bad. In order to develop a self-directed learning mindset, it pays to have the skills to search, find evaluate and learn from Online Tutorials.

Being self-directed is about being able to learn “something” just in time, at a moment’s notice in order to

  • figure something out
  • keep moving forward in an inquiry
  • learn about an “ingredient” that will help us create something larger
  • dig deeper or wider into an area of learning that interests us further or we have developed a passion for

Being able to find and learn from an online tutorial allows the self-directed learner to not have to rely on someone else in real time (synchronously) to teach it to them. Online tutorials allow the learner to be able to learn at their speed, at their convenience, rewinding and repeating according to their own needs. Once we have the skills to learn from other tutorials, the self-directed learner also develops skills to create their own tutorials to cement in their learning and to contribute to the learning of others.

Choice & Voice

The self-directed learner is confident and knowledgeable about choices when it comes to their own learning. Through skills they have developed, they know how to find, evaluate and make decisions what works best for them in order to continue learning. The self-directed learner also is assertive when it comes to sharing their learning in order to amplify the learning experience and by connecting to others to gain perspective and benefit from their expertise.

PLN (Personal Learning Network)

A Personal Learning Network (PLN) is indispensable when developing a self-directed learning mindset. Having a network of experts, eye-witnesses, thought partners, colleagues, mentors, and professionals at one’s fingertips, is an integral part of being able to connect and learn with and from a crowdsourced pool of people. When building a PLN, the self-directed learner makes sure to grow their network to include global perspectives, members of different timezone, in and outside their filter bubble, members from different areas of interest, and connections to active and responsive learners.